BREAKING “THE CURSE OF ACADEMIA”: SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTISE AND WRITING FOR A GENERAL AUDIENCE
You are an industry expert. You know your stuff. You wrote
the book on it – literally. But when tasked with stepping outside of your industry-specific
box — for example, if you’re asked to contribute copy to a sales brochure or draft
an editorial for a customer-facing web copy — you often find that it’s easier
said than done.
Why? It’s not a lack of expertise. And it’s not that you can’t
write. But you’re also very close to
the material, and you’ve grown accustomed to writing almost exclusively for an
audience that speaks your language. You’re also probably used to writing in the
highly formal style that’s often required for industry journals and technical
We half-jokingly call this “the curse of academia” (although
it applies equally to any field or industry, from oil and gas and finance to
hospitality and HR). Fortunately, though, this “curse” can be lifted. Let’s
take a look at a few ways you can make your subject matter more accessible to a
Write like people speak.
In other words, aim for a conversational tone. In
non-technical, non-academic settings, highly formal writing can come across as stuffy,
stilted, or unnatural. A few keys to conversational writing include:
contractions. Words like “you’re,” “it’s” and “they’re” always sound more
natural and conversational than “you are,” “it is,” and “they are.”
sentence fragments. Sentence fragments can create a more natural, less
monotonous flow in your writing, especially when used immediately after a
longer sentence. Make sense? If you’re trying to emphasize an idea, you can
even use a one-word sentence. Really.
sentences with “and,” “or,” “but,” etc. It might make your high school
English teacher cringe, but in conversational writing, this is perfectly
sentences with prepositions. At some point, someone probably told you that
it was never, ever okay to end a sentence with a preposition (we’re looking at
you again, high-school English teacher). This is simply not true. It’s
perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition. In fact, sticking to
this “rule” is a good way to create awkward, unnatural-sounding sentences (Need
out this example from Quick & Dirty tips. We’re pretty sure you’ve
never heard anyone say, “On what did you step?”)
Here’s a great example of conversational, non-technical marketing copy from Apple. This writing breaks several “rules” but it communicates the benefits of a highly technical product in a conversational, accessible way that just about anyone can understand:
Use plain, straightforward language.
Remember, when you’re writing for a general, non-technical
audience, the goal is clarity. Whether you want to showcase the features and
benefits of your product or explain what sets your company apart from the competition,
it’s best to use clear, plain language. Avoid industry jargon and technobabble.
Go easy on the acronyms, and if you must use one, write out the whole phrase on
first use. And steer clear of overused stock phrases and buzzwords like
And, to be clear: “plain, straightforward language” does not
mean “dumbed down.” Need proof? Consider online clothing retailer Everlane. The
company, which has few physical storefronts, is popular for its durable,
ethically sourced basics like jeans and t-shirts. Everlane also has a
reputation for its transparency and open, honest communication. In this
example, the company spotlights one of its denim factories in Vietnam and
explains how its manufacturing processes help reduce waste.
This page has the potential to be bogged down with jargon, numbers, and “green” buzzwords – but it’s not. It’s clear and straightforward and it does a good job explaining a complicated topic in an uncomplicated, accessible way:
If it’s not common knowledge, explain it.
When you’re writing for people in your industry (or in
related industries), you can assume that your readers know what you’re talking
about. You likely don’t have to explain the basics of a product, service, tool,
or technology. But when you’re writing for a general audience, you might want
to back it up a bit and provide some basics.
In the example below, we learn why Exxon’s Mobil 1 Annual Protection explains the science behind synthetic oil — beginning with a quick lesson in viscosity. To a chemical engineer, this stuff is probably pretty basic. But to the average consumer, it provides important background knowledge and helps explain the benefits of the product:
Sometimes, it’s easiest for the reader to “see” what you’re
saying. Don’t shy away from using infographics, charts, illustrations, and
Here’s great infographic about Amazon’s distribution network. Although it ran alongside a meaty article and podcast published by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, you don’t need advanced knowledge to understand it. You don’t even need to read the whole article to get the main takeaways:
When in doubt, get an outside perspective.
Is your writing clear? Have you skipped important steps or
skimmed over critical background information? Does your writing make sense to a
non-technical, non-industry audience? Chances are, you’re too close to your
subject matter to tell. That’s when it helps to bring in a fresh set of eyes.
Send your draft to someone in a different department or to a friend who is
unfamiliar with your industry, product, or service. Ask them if it makes sense,
if they can follow the logic, and if it raises any questions.